Clear Light: Everyone's Inspired by the Scent of Cedar
A small village on the outskirts of northern Albuquerque, Placitas is a portrait of why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment. Vistas are as wide as the land is old, and peaks and plateaus graze the skyline. The wildlife has been the soundtrack for centuries, with wolves howling at the sky, owls with things to say, and critters rustling in the arroyos. And there is vegetation that breathes life into, well, just about everything, and the southwest cedar layers the land with its distinct scent. Up here, in Placitas, 6,000 feet above sea level, you can certainly see, you can definitely hear, and you can certainly smell.
The southwest cedar has been a focal point of life for the Hopi Indians of this region. They've long used it for the health and purification properties they claim it possesses, and when Joshua Peine, a former actor, by chance settled in the area and learned about cedar from the tribe, he knew this was where he belonged.
What followed for Peine and Placitas has been nearly 40 years of business success as Clear Light, The Cedar Co. -- housed in a pair of small buildings off State Road 165 -- brought the joy and essence of cedar to all corners of the globe in the form of sachets, lotions and candles. Peine is still the primary influence on operations at Clear Light, which is run by the company's small and dedicated staff, and Peine's sister Penny, who took over ownership and operations following his 2006 death.
Chapter 1: Harvesting a Business
Clear Light began modestly, as a one-man business out of Peine's home. He began packaging cedar needles from the nearby trees in sachets, as gifts for close friends and family. In 1971 the demand for his small gifts grew into a business that he called Clear Light, an homage to his love for religious readings, and specifically, a state of being outlined in ancient Tibetan texts.
Cedar needles have long been used by Native Americans who believe it possesses therapeutic and healing properties. Cedar -- a natural insect repellent and possessing a distinct fragrance -- has become widely used in homes across the American Southwest.
In 1984, through customer testimonials about Clear Light's sachets, the company received publicity in The New York Times (NYT) and Apartment Life magazine, which accelerated Clear Light's growth. The newfound exposure led to contracts with L.L. Bean and Orvis, and a need to produce his sachets in bulk. It became an important benchmark in Clear Light's history, enabling Peine and his company to expand. They also began exploring new products, and Peine began incorporating the needles in a moisturizer lotion, one of the company's most popular products. Clear Light has since expanded to incense, hand cream, shampoo, candles and soaps.
The current location, which he built in 1985, houses the six-person staff, and the barn and silo where the cedar needles are cured. Clear Light doesn't disclose details of its proprietary curation process, something Peine meticulously developed over his 37 years in Placitas. To maximize the properties of the cedar, the staff at Clear Light only harvest when the trees aren't pollinating, primarily in the summer. They make the short trip into the hills just up the road from the company's home office in a rusty pickup truck that picks and chooses when it wants to start.
The trees grow on government land, which the company is authorized to use. Once the cedar boughs are pruned from the trees and complete the curating process, they're run through a large shaker, which removes any pollen, leaving the needles in their most pure and aromatic form. One of Clear Light's flagship products is its incense, formed out of a daylong cooked cedar tea and then mixed with cedar oil and a proprietary gum. The clay-like substance is then run through a mold and dried for four days before it's packaged.
Chapter 2: Loyal Staffers Make the Business Flourish
In the 1990s and early 2000s, when the e-commerce wave began to crest, Clear Light and its 10 full-time employees crested with it. They made the catalog available online, opening a largely untapped customer base, and providing a boost to solid sales figures.
"When I first started here, the business was booming," says Veronica Skojec, Clear Light's production manager. "We had regular accounts, placed regular orders." Following Peine's passing and the start of the Great Recession, Clear Light was forced to downsize staff from 10 to six, and those who remained were forced to pivot to other positions to keep the business moving forward with Peine's vision.
"That was difficult enough," Skojec says of Peine's passing. Skojec is one of Clear Light's longest-tenured employees. "But then the economy went sour, and yeah, we had to make some adjustments over time. We all had to roll up our sleeves and figure out how we're going to make it work without our founder." So the staff, determined to keep the company going, began to cross-train, and the all-hands approach allowed the company to make it through to the other side, relatively unscathed.
"For all of us, the goal was how to go about keeping the doors open, and being creative and all of us doing jobs that we had not done before," Skojec said. "Until this day, we are willing to make a sale, do whatever it takes to keep the doors open and keep Josh's dream alive, ultimately."
To have such commitment to Peine's vision requires a strong belief in the product. Maddie Lewis came to Clear Light first by becoming a fan of its product. Lewis is a Minnesota native with a distinct Midwestern accent, and with her husband, bought a house in Placitas 12 years ago after a move from Florida. When they moved into the house, which sat empty for six years, Lewis found a Clear Light sachet in a bathroom drawer, still packing that strong cedar scent.
"There was a sachet, and it said rub it between your hands to freshen, and I did, and it smelled wonderful," Lewis said. "I got the address, drove down the street and saw the place, and went home and called. And I was going to be looking for a job pretty soon, so I called and talked to Joshua, and he says come on in for an interview." Lewis, now Clear Light's office manager, oversees inside sales, bookkeeping and most of the company's administration work. And while working in an office that always smells good with beautiful landscape in all directions, Lewis was attracted to the family atmosphere, both in the office and with their customers.
"Some of them have been with us for many years," she says of Clear Light's loyal base. "I know these people, and some of them we are on a first-name basis with. They're like family, and they get to know you."
Chapter 3: The Legacy of a Man Who Found His Spiritual Home
The story of Clear Light's long-term success is truly the story of Peine's legacy, journey and the land that surrounded him. "He entered New Mexico and absolutely fell in love with it. He liked the open spaces, the freedom, the fact it wasn't a built up area, he just kind of liked that," says his sister Penny. "He happened on the property, and fell in love with the little house, and that's where he ended up."
Making cedar products was never part of Peine's plan. After building a successful acting career in Hollywood throughout the 1960s and armed with a handful of film and television credits, Peine grew tired of auditions, rejections and head shots. So, he did what thousands of actors did before and after him, and in 1970 he left it all behind. Peine, an avid biker, climbed on his Harley Davidson (HOG) and headed north, looking for opportunity or chance, not sure which would show its face first. He rode through California and into southern Canada, before looping around and making his way south to Placitas.
A dynamic people person with a knack for making friends, Peine forged a relationship with members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes nearby and by chance, it provided the opportunity he was looking for when he left Hollywood. He learned from the Native Americans the properties and uses of cedar, something that piqued his interest from the very start. Peine had found exactly the place that he didn't know he was even looking for. An adventurer with a love for all things outdoors, Peine soon felt at home.
"When he got on that motorcycle, I don't think he had any idea. He wanted to take a break, and see where it took him," his sister says. "It was by chance he wound up with the lore, and a fluke that he wound up with the information. It captured his interest, and that's how it started."
A tireless worker, Peine would labor over product development for months. His office still sits largely unused, with his nameplate still on the front of his large desk. The vision of what he built when he left Hollywood is still alive and well.
"He was a very rare person. You could love him and hate him within the space of five minutes," Penny says. "But at the heart of it, was that sweet nature that came through. He believed in it, he really believed in its positive properties."
The staff at Clear Light is very aware of the legacy that Peine began building when he got off his Harley Davidson 44 years ago. And at the root of that legacy is the passion and belief that cedar -- in any form -- brings joy to others. "He put his whole heart and soul into Clear Light, and he was a real cedar person," Lewis said. "That's what he would call people. People that would come in and love cedar, they're definitely cedar people."
"He loved the whole concept. He really believed in cedar," his sister Penny says. "He could sell it to anyone, and that's how he started it. And he was better at that than anyone I have ever known."
Andrew Iden is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and producer. He spent eight years as a writer/producer for HLN's Nancy Grace, and he now works as a freelance news editor/producer with CNN and Mixed Bag Media. He's written for CNN, The Bluegrass Situation, and he was a newspaper reporter for six years in northern Virginia before moving south. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AJIden and www.andrewiden.com.