A research program on failure modes induced by spherical indenters in brittle layer structures bonded to polymeric substrates, in simulation of occlusal function in all-ceramic dental crowns, is surveyed. Tests are made on model flat and curved layers bonded onto a dentin-like polymer base, in bilayer (ceramic/polymer) and trilayer (ceramic/ceramic/polymer) configurations. All-transparent systems using glass as a porcelain-like outer or veneer layer and sapphire as a stiff and strong core support layer enable in situ observation of the entire evolution of fracture modes in the brittle layers, from initiation through to failure. With the fracture modes identified, tests are readily extended to systems with opaque polycrystalline dental core ceramics, notably alumina and zirconia. A variety of principal failure modes is identified: outer and inner cone cracks developing in the near-contact region at the top surface; radial cracks developing at the bottom surface along the loading axis; margin cracks from the edges of dome-like structures. All of these modes are exacerbated in cyclic loading by time-cumulative slow crack growth, but inner cones are subject to especially severe mechanical fatigue from hydraulic pumping of water into the crack fissures. Conditions under which each mode may be expected to dominate, particularly in relation to geometrical variables (layer thickness, contact radius) and relative material properties, are outlined. Clinical issues such as crown geometry, overload versus fatigue failure, role of residual stresses in fabrication, etc. are addressed.