Since the introduction of ceramic-on-ceramic couplings in total hip arthroplasty, continuous efforts have been performed to improve the performance of the prosthetic components. To expand the applications of ceramics, in 2000 an innovative alumina–zirconia composite was introduced in the market. The present study represents the first investigation aimed at characterising at the molecular level Biolox® delta retrievals implanted between 1999 and 2009. Fluorescence and Raman results showed that a progressive improvement of the material properties has occurred in the period between 1999 and 2009. Raman spectroscopy showed that wear was the main cause of the in vivo tetragonal-to-monoclinic zirconia transformation. Our findings validated the in vitro accelerated ageing protocols proposed in the literature to simulate the effects of the in vivo wear, because the mechanism operating in vivo was found to be the same active in vitro. The in vitro fracture of a new femoral head appeared to be an extreme wear condition that determined the most significant changes in the residual stress state and monoclinic content both in the section of the fragments and on their surface. The micro-Raman mapping of the fractured articulating surface showed that the tetragonal-to-monoclinic transformation involved a region much more extended than as reported in the literature. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.