Amber is fossilized tree sap. Certain types of trees such as conifers produce an abundance of sticky sap that can harden into a solid substance, called resin. It has many uses, including priming the bows of string instruments (violins, violas and cellos, for example) to create more friction and thus more sound. Tree sap is also used for food (maple syrup, anyone?) and medicine (the current fad on google appears to be “survivalist” pine sap to treat wounds). Tree resin is also used to make wood varnish. Some tree resins are aromatic and used for incense.
As the tree sap ages, it polymerizes and hardens. Partly polymerized tree sap is often termed copal (this also refers specifically to sap from the tree Protium copal (Burseraceae). After at least 100,000 years of existence, polymerized tree sap can be termed “amber.” Sometimes copal is termed “young amber.” Older amber is usually a darker color.
Amber makes beautiful jewelry; that from the Baltic area (Russia) is considered particularly valuable. (Russia produces more than 90% of the world’s amber.)
In addition to its value as jewelry, amber has long been of interest to paleontologists because of its ability to preserve intact, whole organisms, including insects and plant parts. The Jurassic Park movie series is based on the idea that a mosquito preserved in “ancient” (Jurassic) age amber could yield DNA that could be tweaked to permit cloning of a Jurassic-age dinosaur.
Currently, much of the amber at Taos Rockers is, in fact, “young” amber (copal), less than 100,000 years old. The fun part, it has lots of insects preserved in it that can easily be seen with the help of a magnifying glass. In the Taos Rockers adobe-and-viga shop, you can find some specimens of genuine (> 100,000 years old) amber from the Dominican Republic. It is a darker, deeper shade than the copal.