The appeal of a pilot watch is simple. At 12,000 feet over enemy territory, there’s no time to squint at an unclear dial or fiddle with a fussy timepiece – everything must be right there, right now. Torgoen has been tackling that less-is-more premise since 2009, offering functional pilot watches that stick to the purist ethos while maintaining an affordable bottom line. Acquired by the E. Gluck Corporation a decade after its founding, Torgoen sells direct-to-consumer using Swiss movements with occasional limited production models like 2020’s T25 Meteorite, which, you guessed it, incorporates actual material from the Muonionalusta meteor recovered from Sweden.

Born from Warbirds

Torgoen’s latest (and nearly sold-out) special edition is the T51, which will see a total of 200 units distributed over two styles: A black dial scheme with grey and teal accents and a black strap, and a metallic dial with grey and blue accents paired with a brown strap. The T51’s hook is that its dials are recycled from the wings of three actual P51 Mustangs, the supercharged, V12-powered hot rods of the sky that helped turn the tides of World War II. Torgoen collaborated on the dials with Pacific Fighters, an aircraft restoration firm, so each watch presents a one-of-a-kind patina of scratches, scrapes, and texture from the well-worn wings. The 44mm case houses a Swiss-sourced, Ronda 515.24H GMT quartz movement, with a date dial positioned at 3:00 o’clock. The caseback incorporates a raised rendition of a P-51 aircraft, and a small engraving of the numbered sequence.

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My two samples were shipped from New York to Florence, where I’ve been stationed for a month-and-a-half long working vacation. Italy is a curious location from which to evaluate watches, especially ones with a theme of patina and age incorporated into the face: when you’re surrounded by relics pre-dating the Roman Empire, a watch dial sourced from a 20th century aircraft somehow manages to feel relatively fresh. Unboxing the well-traveled watches revealed two brand new pieces, numbered 06/100 and 95/100. Buying a T51 is a bit of patina roulette— there’s no way of knowing if your dial will be more scraped and scratched, or relatively pristine.

Patina Roulette

My testers were a bit on the clean side, though tilting certain angles in the right light revealed some hairline scratches and light abrasions beneath the sapphire crystal. Your wear & tear may vary. The 44mm case and somewhat large lugs approaches the edge of what works with my relatively small wrists; for contrast, my 46mm Breitling Heritage II SuperOcean has a similar edge-to-edge dimensionality due to its larger case but smaller lugs, and also fits just right for me. The T51 fits comfortably against my wrist, with no unusual protuberances or sharp edges. The crown extends and retracts easily from the stainless-steel case, whose water resistance is rated at 50 meters. One detail of note: the metallic finish is bare aluminum, and the black is still P51-sourced but has been treated to resemble the aircraft’s famous 8-Day cockpit clock.

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I wore the T51s on hot days somewhat reluctantly, as I didn’t want to soak the tightly stitched Italian leather straps with perspiration. That said, the watches achieve their goal of offering quick, at-a-glance timekeeping despite the blindingly bright Tuscan sun and the potential (but thankfully unencountered) possibility of feeling too chunky for continued comfort.

A (High-Powered) Italian Twist

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Reviewing cars for a living takes me to some out-of-the-ordinary locations, and this summer has been no exception. While in possession of my two Torgoen testers I flew to Valencia, Spain to put the new Lamborghini Huracán Tecnica through its paces at Circuit Ricardo Tormo. While it’s no P51 Mustang (which typically trade hands for 7-figure money), the V10-powered, 631 horsepower Tecnica is a remarkable achievement in itself, presenting itself as one of the last pure internal combustion supercars from the Italian brand. Within the supercar’s carbon and Alcantara-lined cockpit, the T51 comes across as solid but decidedly un-blingy, with the irregularities of its aircraft-derived face too subtle to be perceived amidst the showy, hexagon-themed interior.

Another curious contrast: my interview with Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann, the famously sartorial executive with a penchant for exceptional timepieces. I once enjoyed a sit-down with Stephan at the Quail Gathering, where he was wearing a platinum Rolex Daytona on one wrist and an Apple Watch on the other— surrounded by his signature myriad bracelets, natch. This time around he was sporting a rather extroverted Roger Dubuis skeleton watch, which happens to be a near-perfect sponsorship match for Lamborghini’s irascible brand. While I felt rather outgunned by Mr. Winkelmann’s formidable show of horological force, it must be noted that my Torgoen tester comes in at a humble $495 – likely a fraction of the cost of his strap, let alone the entirety of his astronomically priced timepiece.

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My time with the Torgoens was also spent in the company of a 1992 Land Rover Defender 110, which I purchased in Italy with the express purpose of tooling around the country and shipping back home. Against the sparse (and largely plastic) dashboard, the T51 feels hearty and substantial. Though it lacks the rugged, hard-edged character of the Defender’s blocky exterior, the T51 holds its own in terms of honest functionality. Which brings me to my next and final point about the Torgoen T51.

Utility vs. Ornament: The Ultimate Pilot Watch Debate

At their core, pilot’s watches are all about the simple utility of telling time without the distraction of embellishment or unnecessary features. Brands like IWC, Bell & Ross, and Panerai have made a mint selling premium watches that adhere to the theme by embracing fine finishes and just-so designs. But in reality, you’re likelier to find more workaday, back-to-basics timepieces on the wrists of military and professional pilots than you are five-figure status symbols — which brings us back to the Torgoen T51. With fundamentals like a Swiss movement, sapphire crystal, low-key-but-decent-quality finishes, and nicely executed details like quick-release Italian leather straps, the T51 ticks a whole bunch of boxes.

Brown Sleeve Bag Beige Wood

If you’re the type to pooh-pooh its Asian final point of assembly, consider that among Torgoen’s fans is space innovator Richard Branson, who told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that “My watch is a Torgoen T16,” going on to quip that he “… bought it because I just thought it had a pretty face. As you can tell I’m not really into things particularly. By the way, what time is it?” Status-busting billionaire jokes aside, Branson’s soundbite speaks volumes: the Hodinkee crowd might disdain a brand focused on the sub-$500 market, but Torgoen has managed to thrive in the affordable pilot watch niche by capitalizing on the genre’s inherently no-nonsense attitude of authenticity. Though the brand doesn’t date back to WWII, its links to aviation are respectable: not only was it co-founded by pilot Benzi Rosenski (who still communicates with Torgoen brass about development and brand issues), the watchmaker has partnered with firms including the California Fire Pilot Association and Miracle Flights. So while some brands can still claim literal roots to WWII airmen— think Longines, Hamilton, and Zenith, to name a few— this Torgoen angle on clean design, P51-sourced hardware, and affordability make it an easy sell for those seeking budget conscious pilot watches.

Learn more about the Torgoen T51 here.